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Divorce and family law explained 

Political battles over unmarried couples rights

The political parties are at odds it seems when it comes to the rights of unmarried couples and how these rights can be protected in law. Specialist family law firm Woolley & Co see the significant impact that misunderstanding can have when unmarried couples split and expect to receive the same rights as their married counterparts.

In this article we consider the different options being explored by the parties and considers the impact on cohabiting couples.

There is currently a private members bill being presented to parliament with the backing of Resolution that if successful and implemented in law will end the injustice and financial hardship faced by thousands of cohabiting couples, carers and siblings who live together.

Conversely there is a Conservative plan being introduced that would mean unmarried couples being denied the rights married couples receive, so what exactly are your rights under the current law and what could they be if either of the above proposals were to become law?

Most people think that if you live with your partner for a couple of years you get the same rights as married couples. But this isn’t true. Couples who live together have hardly any legal rights automatically.

So what happens if you split up? Well, currently the law states that your ex doesn’t have to pay you any maintenance for your own benefit, even if you've given up work to look after the children or your home (although they will still have to pay child support for their children).

If you rent your home and the tenancy is in your ex's name only, you will have no automatic right to stay if your ex asks you to leave or walks out. If your ex owns the home, and there's no other agreement or understanding in place, you will have no automatic right to stay if your ex asks you to leave. If there's no other agreement in place, your ex will walk away with all the savings and possessions they built up out of their own money. Where you bought things together but each contributed different amounts to the price, you own it in the shares in which you contributed.

The private members Bill would protect the vulnerable without equating living together to marriage or civil partnership in every way. For example, the Bill would apply only to people living in the same household for a minimum period of time in which the parties have provided a financial or other commitment to each other.

Proposals in the bill include the creation of a coherent framework of rights for those living together as a couple (whether opposite or same sex) who do not marry or register a civil partnership. The framework will include the right to make a claim for financial support on separation and a number of other rights, including tax exemptions for these cohabitants.

With regards to the Conservative plans, the proposals in the report from former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, link a rise in cohabitation to family breakdown and therefore focus on preserving marriage. The plans include making divorce more difficult, with the state helping couples prepare for marriage and work through difficulties. The report hinted at raising the cost of divorce, suggesting that low cost led people not to work at saving a marriage.

The Conservative proposals would also see prenuptial agreements being recognised in English Law which they are currently not, the courts at present only having to “take them into account as part of all the circumstances of the case.”

Resolution approved family lawyer Sue Harwood has mixed views on the Conservative proposals; “I can only speak from my own experience of dealing with couples when their relationship has broken down. Forcing them to stay together for the sake of the family often creates great pressure on the couple and their children. A well managed, amicable divorce can bring security and emotional release to all the parties concerned.”

“Unfortunately I still come across unmarried couples who believe in the myth of common law husbands and wives. There’s no such thing, and what that means is that couples who have been together for years often assume they have rights, in relation to their home and finances which simply aren’t there in law.

“To obtain similar rights to a married couple an unmarried couple would need a Living Together Agreement which helps them decide what they will each contribute in the relationship and is a record of what is agreed. If the couple then separates the agreement can be referred to, to ensure the split is as amicable and fair as possible.”

There’s no indication of when or whether the private members bill will gain approval and become law, and at the moment the Conservatives proposals have little bearing on current legislation so any couples living together outside of marriage need to think carefully about their legal rights and consider whether they need the protection of a formal agreement. 

Need further advice?
Call Woolley & Co on 0800 3213832 or book a free initial telephone appointment with one of our lawyers.
 

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